New Japan, New Asia?

Last November, shortly after Election Day, I met with a legislator from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Kuniko Tanioka was in town to see the usual Washington types. But she also wanted a front-row seat to watch Barack Obama's historic win. After all, Obama was the reason she'd thrown her hat in the ring in the first place. Tanioka, the president of a women's university in a city between Tokyo and Kyoto, was inspired by Obama's convention speech in 2004 and his promise of change. If an outsider like Obama could transform American politics, why couldn't she, as an outsider, transform Japanese politics?

There was only one problem. Her Democratic Party had never been in power. In fact, only one party has really been in charge of Japan since the end of World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) helped build the world's No. 2 economy, but it has also imposed a stifling consensus that discouraged public debate and suppressed civil society initiative. As a result, Japanese elections have been about as exciting as watching grass grow.

But yesterday, politics in Japan became a whole lot more interesting when Tanioka's party captured more than 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of Japanese parliament. Most pundits have dismissed the vote as simply a protest against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's ineptitude, the rising unemployment figures, and the indignity of living in a one-party state.

This dismissal obscures the fact that the Democratic Party offers a dramatically different platform. Party leader Yukio Hatoyama recently delivered a stinging attack on "market fundamentalism." Instead of this "U.S.-led" approach, he argued that "we must work on policies that regenerate the ties that bring people together, that take greater account of nature and the environment, that rebuild welfare and medical systems, that provide better education and child-rearing support, and that address wealth disparities." Japan might become the first country to implement a serious, post-meltdown economic policy that will humanize globalization and drive a stake through casino capitalism -- in a way that Obama, beholden to the Wall Street interests that helped put him in office, has never promised to do.

Hatoyama also envisions a new foreign policy for Japan. "Regionally, the Democratic Party would likely guide Japan toward better relations with China," I write in Revolution in Japan. "Hatoyama has also vowed not to visit Yasukuni shrine as long as it continues to house the spirits of Japanese war criminals. This could lead to an upturn in Japan-South Korean relations as well."

But the burning question for Washington is the future of U.S.-Japanese relations. The DPJ has never been enthusiastic about Japan serving as a handmaiden to U.S. military operations. Hatoyama has called for a more equal relationship with Washington. This rhetoric might simply translate into a demand that the United States pay more for stationing troops in Japan. Or the DPJ implement a much more Asia-centric, multilateral, diplomacy-rich approach that kicks U.S. troops out of Okinawa (and perhaps the Japanese mainland as well), ends all support for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and in Asia, and fundamentally recasts the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement.

Many observers in the United States are quick to assert that the alliance with Japan will survive intact. "Some worry that a DPJ government may undermine the U.S.-Japanese security alliance," writes Dan Sneider, but the party leaders are "deeply committed to a strong relationship, even if they take a different path now and then." Although he acknowledges the potential challenge to the alliance, the Heritage Foundation's Bruce Klingner argues that "Washington can take some comfort from knowing that dire predictions of a dramatic leftward lurch in Japan are wrong." Both liberals and conservatives note that Hatoyama and other party leaders seem to have backtracked on some of their more independent pronouncements as the elections loomed.

But perhaps Hatoyama is simply being tactical. He saw what happened to Roh Moo-Hyun after the South Korean leader announced a similar call for a more equal relationship with Washington. The Bush administration savaged Roh, and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in particular seemed to take pleasure in twisting the arms of his South Korean counterparts. Hatoyama and the DPJ would be wise to make all the right noises and yet, at a policy level, effect foreign policy change that the Japanese (and Asians in general) can truly believe in. The Japanese revolutionaries who engineered the DPJ's electoral victory, like Kuniko Tanioka, will accept nothing less.

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